Sunday 18 August 2019

Dear David: Getting my four-year-old out of bed in the morning is a nightmare

Clinical psychologist David Coleman
Clinical psychologist David Coleman
Morning problems. Photo posed by models
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clincial psychologist and parenting expert David Coleman on dealing with the difficulties of a child who doesn't like mornings.

Q. My daughter is nearly four and we are having terrible problems getting her up in the mornings. She kicks, screams, throws her clothes away, we practically have to manhandle her to get her dressed. She seems really happy at her preschool and has always gone there, so that isn't the cause. We are at our wits' end with her. It's getting to a stage now where we absolutely dread going into her room in the morning. We've tried the reward charts, sticker charts and nothing works. She gets lots of sleep but just seems to wake up in bad form. Please help.

David replies: It does sound like it is very difficult for you both. I can imagine that you and her dad probably draw lots to see who  is the poor misfortune that has to  get her up and out each morning.

Although you don't reference it, are the weekend mornings the same? Often, when parents are both working and are stressed trying to get themselves and their family out in the morning, that stress can pervade to everyone in the family. Some children cope well with the stress and others react to it every time.

So, perhaps your daughter senses that you and her dad are both under pressure already, by the time you are waking her up, and her response to that pressure is to resist?

If so, then you may want to think about the morning routine, at a much broader level. Could it be worth, for example, getting up 15 minutes earlier yourself, to give you enough time to shower or eat breakfast, creating a bit more time to be available to your daughter?

Is there a better way to wake your daughter? Perhaps she needs an alarm of her own, which wakes her, but wakes her early enough that she has some time to lie in bed and "come to". Some folks are great to just jump out of bed, but more of us need just a bit of time to be ready for that wrench.

Does she need to come down and eat before she goes through the rigmarole of dressing?

Another possibility to consider is that this morning drama serves some purpose for her. When children have a habit of behaving in a particular way, over and over again, even though it causes them lots of trouble, it is always worth thinking about what might be the secondary gain for that child.

Your daughter's resistance to getting up and dressed seems to cause no end of trouble for you and for her, yet she seems motivated enough to continue with the same drama every day. So, I wonder if she gets something from it?

A third possibility is that your daughter is very sensitive to the clothes that she wears. Many children have sensory issues such that the "feel" of certain fabrics, or the presence of seams, or tags can be irritating to the point of major upset and distress.

It might be worth getting an assessment with an occupational therapist to see if your daughter is one such child. Naturally, if it is a physical sensitivity to her clothes that will require a bit of experimentation to find fabrics or clothes that are less irritating.

A fourth consideration is whether this is just part of your daughter's temperament. Is she like this throughout the day, or just in the morning? If her oppositionality runs throughout the day then you may need to think about a whole change in parenting approach. If it is just a morning thing then all the more reason to look, particularly, at the dynamic of mornings.

You might like to experiment with some of the ideas I have given above, in terms of routine. You will probably also want to think about the attitude with which you go in to her in the morning. I can almost guarantee that if you go with that feeling of dread, you are more likely to get opposition or resistance.

Approaching her with warmth, humour and a really positive attitude will make the process easier. Even though the struggle may be similar, your experience of it will be different if you are thinking warmly and kindly about her.

The one thing you must definitely do is try to change something, either about the structure of the mornings or about how you interact with her. Things aren't working right now and so it is time to do something different.

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